Monday, March 9, 2009

Best Days of Coaching

Maybe this should really be titled “the days of best coaching,” but that sounds a little awkward. The difference between the two is that the post title suggests the days that were most enjoyable for the coach – the victorious team race meets and the big regatta wins – and the alternative refers to the days that coaching did the sailors the most good. Looking back, the second category is really the winner either way. Although it is always fun on the days your team succeeds, the long term satisfaction is in remembering the days of quantum leaps in learning.

My earliest most outstanding day as a high school coach was one of those very light wind days (under 5) where everything moves in such slow motion that I knew the kids could not stay focused. It was one of those water throwing days, and this was a team that enjoyed throwing water on each other as much as sailing well. We really had a long way to go on the fundamentals, and the team lacked confidence. They almost expected to lose. Without a lot of good options for practice drills, we coaches decided that it was a good day for rudderless sailing; at least there wouldn’t be damage if (when) the boats hit each other. The sailor’s task was simple enough – cross through the starting line and sail to a windward mark and back without a rudder. It was all about using sails and weight to steer. Once the rudders came out, the boats began moving in random patterns, doing everything but sailing in a straight line. I reminded everyone to pull their boards about one third up, (with the board all the way down, the drill is impossible in a 420) and then a few began to sail in a straight line for a short while until an unexpected turn, tack, or jibe. A couple started to get it, managed to sail across the start line and make some progress to windward.

I must have sat in the coach boat for 45 minutes watching DS and CG turn circles, never getting more that 40 feet from my boat. DS and CG were very smart kids, very laid back, and not too serious about sailing. Since they were not athletes, intuitively translating body movement to movements of the boat was beyond them. My coaching was a constant barrage… Trim this sail or that one. No! Too much. You have to be more subtle. DS, move forward. CG, get more to the center. On it went, and around and around they turned. When they finally made each action far more subtle and adjusted for overturning with even more subtle motion, they started sailing straight lines. Once they got that, they were able to tack successfully in a matter of minutes. And once they could tack, it was fairly easy to make it to the windward mark. Coming back, which was a whole new ballgame, also came pretty easily for them. They finished the course, and I told them to go another lap. They did several more laps, eventually outdistancing most of the others who continued to make one step backward with each step forward.

DS in particular was a different skipper from that day forward. Instead of being totally inconsistent, he was always fast. He didn’t always go the right way, but he always got there effortlessly and quickly. He had a new feel for the boat. He just let the boat sail fast, without working too hard or getting in its way. I have never seen a sailor so changed. A real quantum leap.

The most recent outstanding day involved the other end of the wind spectrum. Every coach says “sail the boat flat,” and every sailor knows it, but really doing it is another thing. This was a day that I had wanted to practice team racing, but with the wind in the high teens with higher gusts, it was clear that enhanced team race skills weren’t going to result. Instead, I decided try a drill called Drag Race that I liked and they didn’t. The idea is to drag race two close hauled boats side by side, but in clear air, to develop straight line boat speed. My thought was that staying flatter in these conditions would make a marked difference in boat speed and really bring home to the kids the importance of flatness.

Despite their initial reluctance, the kids responded fully to the challenge. Everyone hiked harder and longer than ever before. Skippers eased the main in conjunction with hard hiking to keep the boats flat and going fast. Crews who usually wouldn’t lean back from a sitting position were parallel to the water with toes in the straps. We had a camera and got picture after picture of pairs of boats sailing flat and fast, with spray everywhere, and sailors fully extended. I plan to use the pictures to show them what they are doing right and to sear into their brains that image of themselves as competent heavy air sailors. I like to think this was a breakthrough for the kids. Another quantum leap.

These days of sailing epiphanies are the most rewarding for a coach. We seldom get to see success in leaps. Although the daily grind of slow, incremental improvement is enough for me, these days are treasures.